Ash Wednesday 2018

The Collect for this day:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I think I am over Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, Ash Wednesday (if we even called it that) was not particularly noted. It was the 1970s and early 80s in a very Protestant town in a staunchly Presbyterian church. Lent was certainly observed, in the sense that the lessons were prescribed by The Worshipbook (1970), which introduced one of those Protestant denominational lectionaries (themselves based on the Roman Catholic lectionary work out of Vatican II) that later were rolled up into today’s Revised Common Lectionary. So I was in my formative years of Christian worship during the Presbyterian Church’s own formative years of ecumenism in worship.

But it was still recognizably Presbyterian worship. I’m sure it still is, but our ministers (rarely called “clergy” in a church that took the “priesthood of all believers” nearly literally) and choir wore only the academic-style “Geneva” robes. In the late 1970s, we had a Welsh senior minister who I think introduced us to the notion of clerical collars. I remember he would offer the benediction on St. David’s Day — a saint’s day being by itself a very suspect notion, if he were not himself so thoroughly Reformed — *in* Welsh. So while many American Presbyterians were rediscovering their Scottish roots, we were exploring our Welsh roots, in northeast Oklahoma.

But there was no imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent. As lectionary ecumenism led to other explorations of earlier Presbyterian and Reformed traditions that held more in common with its Anglican siblings than its Methodist nieces and nephews, we might have a simple congregational dinner — bean soup, iceberg lettuce salad (or spinach, if we were being exotic), garlic bread, and several choices for dessert, Lenten discipline be damned on that score when it comes to church suppers.

Nowadays, there’s an Ash Wednesday service at the church where grew up and I think they may even impose ashes on the foreheads of today’s staunch Presbyterians. Although staunchness seems to be out of favor among that denomination — just as you’d be hard-pressed to find an Episcopal Church in most cities today that is overly concerned with its earlier Reformation allegiance, as proudly proclaimed in its former name, “The Protestant Episcopal Church.”

Funny aside: When the Anglican Communion in Japan had become established to the point of finding its own name as a national church and consecrating its own bishops (1923), it landed on Nippon Sei Ko Kai: “Japanese Holy Catholic Church.” Because “Protestant Episcopal Church” translated into Japanese meant “house of the quarrelsome overlords.”

I didn’t really discover Ash Wednesday until I joined the quarrelsome overlord church in 1986. It was, along with all the other smells and bells being rediscovered in the newly Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church, a wonderful, earthy (even dusty!), physical experience of worship that I’d never seen outside of movies or books. (There has to be a high overlap among people who became Episcopalians as adults and adults who read and loved the Harry Potter series. And no, it’s not satanic witchcraft to have a cross marked in ashes on your forehead, although there is an element of medieval “bring out your dead!” to the proceedings. That’s part of the thrill, I think.)

But after more than 30 years of weighing the Gospel lesson for the day against the ashes on the head — part of me wants to take a break from Ash Wednesday. Not from Lent, but from trying to unearth fresh or thawed identification with the practice of imposing ashes … and singing the same lugubrious hymns. (There are only 11 hymns specifically for Lent in the Episcopal hymnal, so even if you process in and out without singing, you still end up singing them all way more than you might want to, especially since not very many of them are very good.)

By contrast, parts of the Collect for today feel less dusty. A “new and contrite heart” is something I can get behind. In other years, I have had profound Lenten journeys that were begun being reminded that I am dust and to dust I shall return. I got that part, I think. At least for this year, when you’ve got ashes on offer — imposition of ashes; round-the-clock ashing; ashes-to-go at the train station — I’m gonna pass, I think. Probably next year. Or the year after that. (Not the first time I wish some of our liturgical traditions were on a three-year cycle, same as the lectionary. Years go by much too quickly as the number of younger people I run across seems to increase. It can’t be a coincidence; I think they’re causing it.)

Beyond that, however, I’m not even sure I’m completely on board with this whole Collect today.

“Almighty and edverlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”: so far, so (pretty) good. It’s certainly more tepid than any notion of unconditional love, but at least God didn’t make us to hate us.

“…and forgive the sins of all who are penitent”: Hmm. There’s that debate (perhaps *the* debate) among the Christians: Does God forgive us even if we are not penitent? It’s probably really a koan, in the “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound” kind of way. Perhaps I can affirm that God forgives the penitent just as I can affirm that Black Lives Matter. Because all lives do *not* matter unless Black Lives Matter. But if it comes down to me being told to forgive 70 times 7 times, but my Father in heaven will *only* forgive if I am penitent seems to hold God to a lower standard. It also doesn’t seem to square with Jesus’ prayer on the cross — not to get ahead of ourselves here and jump to the end of Lent — to forgive them “for they know not what they do.” And even that, I wonder, may be too conditional. But it’s not me hanging on the cross, so I won’t quibble with Jesus’ doctrine of grace and salvation. He performed admirably under a lot of stress, I think.

“Create and make in us new and contrite hearts”: Yes. And not just in a self-help, self-improvement way. But in the modern age, it’s hard not to hear it in this sense. And perhaps it’s not the worst way to approach it. But a “new” heart seems at least to recommend a “new” way of contrition that isn’t just being the best us we can be.

“…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”: This kind of stinks, straight up. If it were even “we, who worthily lament…” it would be better. Maybe it is just a statement of fact, however. That it’s understood that you wouldn’t be praying this unless you were asking it. You can’t (I can’t, at least) very easily pray: “Lord, forgive me, even though I’m not a bit remorseful for my sins.” Mother Church wisely does not to wish to raise her children to be psychopaths secure in their faith. Having said all this, and even being at heart the way I feel and understand it, the Collect still reeks of conditional love. But then, the Bible itself does, most of the time. You have to dig carefully and then interpret roughly to understand anything like grace.

“…through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Welcome to Lent: The Season of (Conditional) Love

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